Composed by Billy Strayhorn and released in 1941, “Take the ‘A’ Train” became the Duke Ellington orchestra’s signature tune. The February 15, 1941 recording of the song remained on the top charts for seven weeks and is now considered the definitive version.

Tune in today as we celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month with some of this compositions most notable covers!

ASCAP raised its licensing fees in 1940, causing Ellington and other composers to put their compositions on hold. This gave Billy Strayhorn and Mercer Ellington, who were registered with BMI, the opportunity to compose for the band, resulting in many popular songs, including Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

In the book Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington, Mercer Ellington recalls finding a draft of “Take the ‘A’ Train” in the trash. Strayhorn had thrown out his 1939 composition with the concern that it sounded too much like a Fletcher Henderson tune.

The most popular account of the origin of the title is that when Duke Ellington offered Strayhorn a job and gave him directions to his apartment in New York, the first instruction was to take the A Train, which at the time went from eastern Brooklyn up into Harlem and northern Manhattan.

Ray Nance’s trumpet solo on the original recording became the most popular of his career, and most trumpeters continue to play his solo note by note when performing this composition. 

Also a violinist, Nance performed a moving version of the song at a memorial service for Strayhorn in 1967. He later recorded it on violin in an emotional duet with pianist Roland Hanna.

While Strayhorn originally wrote the tune’s lyrics, there are a few variations, the most popular one recorded by Delta Rhythm Boys. Joya Sherrill wrote her own lyrics in 1944 at the age of 20. After performing for them for Ellington, the band adopted her lyrics and hired her as a vocalist.

Ella Fitzgerald often performed the song, which is included in the 1957 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook with Ellington’s orchestra.

The Rolling Stones used the song to open their 1982 live album “Still Life” (American Concert 1981). It was also included in “NPR 100,” National Public Radio’s compilation of the most important American musical works of the 20th century.

“Take the ‘A’ Train” has appeared in a number of films, including Paris Blues (1961), Radio Days (1987) and Catch Me if You Can (2002). The song was also in the Broadway musicals Bubbling Brown Sugar (1976), Sophisticated Ladies (1981) and Play On! (1997).

There are more than 1, 575 known recorded versions of this classic. Tune in today as we celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month with some of this compositions most notable covers!

“Take the ‘A’ Train” has also been featured as one of our Stories of Standards. Learn more here

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